“Oh, from out the sounding cells
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!”
— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells”
The text of The Bells (Kolokola), Rachmaninoff’s 1913 four-movement work for chorus and orchestra, has a somewhat curious history. As performed this weekend by the Dallas Symphony and Chorus with conductor James Gaffigan, the history is more curious still. Rachmaninoff’s text is based on a very loose Russian adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem “The Bells” by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont. For this weekend’s supertitles, Balmont’s text has been translated back into English, and those who know Poe’s rhymey, alliterative, onomatopoetic original will see little that is familiar to them.
In brief: Balmont took a poem that is all about sound and changed it into something entirely different. Then Rachmaninoff, rather ironically, set the Russian version to music, giving it back the sound that Balmont excised.
This weekend is the first time the DSO has performed The Bells, and with good reason, frankly. It requires a large orchestra, including organ, piano, and celeste, plus a full chorus and three vocal soloists. It is always worthwhile to hear a live performance of a piece so seldom played. But there are a limited number of opportunities to enlist these many personnel for a program, and there are many better pieces for chorus and orchestra. Rachmaninoff was a brilliant melodist, but we hear little of that here. And this is a dark piece. While Poe’s poem moves us progressively from light (the sledge bells and wedding bells) to darkness (the alarum bells and iron bells) in the poem’s four parts, Rachmaninoff takes us nearly straight to doom, quoting the Dies Irae prominently, even in the second movement, “The Mellow Wedding Bells.” What kind of wedding IS this, anyway?
Still, the chorus was brilliantly prepared by director Joshua Habermann—their dynamic range in particular was thrilling. It’s pretty easy to get 200 singers to sing loudly. Softly? Not so much, but Habermann and his chorus manage it beautifully. All three soloists, tenor Sergey Skorokhodov, baritone Andrei Bondarenko, and especially soprano Mané Galoyan, were excellent in their roles, with fine phrasing, breath control, and range of color. The orchestra under conductor Gaffigan was very fine indeed, most especially English horn player David Matthews, whose controlled, lyrical, gorgeous fourth movement solo was the highlight of the performance.
But the real joy of the evening happened after intermission. While listeners may often think of Lizst’s music as full of flash and dash, his Concerto No. 2 in A Major belies that reputation. It is a technically sophisticated concerto with considerably more interplay between orchestra and soloist than we hear in his first concerto. Soloist Yefim Bronfman is a player of exceptional subtlety and musicality, weaving himself into the fabric of the orchestra rather than demanding attention. He is a team player, adjusting his tempo at one point to match the orchestra’s, and making eye contact with Principal Cello Chris Adkins, whose cello solos were heartbreakingly beautiful and tenderly phrased.
The headliner of the evening came last: the choral version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Usually, in the U.S., this piece is played at Independence Day concerts, which is a little weird, historically speaking. But played indoors, it loses a lot of its flair. After all, this is a piece written for carillon and cannons. (When I was in college, I performed it with both, which remains one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life.) Indoors, neither cannon nor carillon is feasible, and tubular bells and bass drum are a bit of a sad substitute. So, enter the chorus! The original version of the overture is instrumental, beginning with just two violas and four cellos keening the opening melody. The choral version replaces them with full chorus, which is certainly more dramatic, but it negates some of the slow intensification that is the appeal of the original version: “Let’s start with six strings, and end with cannons, cathedral bells, and a brass band” is a bold idea, for sure. However listeners might feel about the addition of the chorus—or the absence of those cannons—the Dallas Symphony and Chorus performed ably, providing a thrilling ending to a quirky program.